CJ Lyons is the bestselling author of seven Lucy Guardino thrillers, and the latest, Last Light, sees her heroine leaving the FBI to join the Beacon Group, a firm that specializes in cold cases and brings justice to forgotten victims.
Lucy is partnered with TK O’Connor, an army veteran struggling with her transition to ordinary life and they’re soon led to rural Texas to investigate their first case: the murder of Lily Martin and her young child in 1987. The convicted killers have been behind bars for the past twenty-nine years. But who really killed Lily Martin and her infant daughter? And what price will Lucy pay to expose a truth people will kill to keep buried?
CJ is a paediatric ER doctor turned New York Times bestselling author of twenty-nine novels — her ‘Thrillers With A Heart’ have notched up with sales of over 2 million. She’s assisted police and prosecutors with cases and has worked in numerous trauma centres, on a Navajo reservation, as a crisis counsellor, victim advocate, as well as a flight physician for Life Flight and Stat Medevac.
She’s had a fascinating career, as a medic and a novelist, and in this insightful intel interview CJ discusses her indomitable heroine, our fascination with cold cases, how she picked herself up when her dream debut ended in disaster, and the piece of writing advice that Jeffery Deaver gave her…
Tell us about Lucy Guardino…
I created Lucy because I was tired of reading thrillers featuring female FBI agents who were driven by angst, fleeing demons, fighting addiction, stalked by serial killers, or with dark, forbidden secrets, etc.–all things that would never allow them to do their job effectively in the real world.
As a woman who has always worked in a male dominated field (Emergency Medicine), I wanted to create a main character I could relate to. Someone facing the same kind of struggles balancing work and family and who felt “real.”
So, I thought, why not go as real as it gets? How about a Pittsburgh soccer mom, who has a loving and supportive family? No angst, no dark past, no addictions or demons… Just the very real need to do her job the best she can while also giving her family as much love and attention as possible.
Of course, I can’t go too easy on her, so during her early adventures with the FBI, I give her the worst possible job, tracking pedophiles and sex offenders. The fact that she happens to be good at it only makes her life more complicated because she fights a constant battle of protecting her family from her work.
How has Lucy changed over the course of your novels about her…
One of the comments I hear frequently from readers is that they love Lucy because she is so very human in the way she’s grown over the course of the series. Snake Skin, her first adventure, focused on the almost universal tension that adults face, juggling family and work. And when your work is saving lives and chasing down the worst of the worst, how can you say no?
Each novel is different, from dark psychological suspense in Blood Stained, to action-adventure in Kill Zone, to a set-in-real-time fight for her life in After Shock, and the consequences of that fight in Hard Fall. With each challenge she faces, each mistake as well as each triumph, Lucy has paid a price, and come away with a better understanding of herself.
I think the novel that best reveals this is Hard Fall, which won the International Thriller Writers’ 2015 Thriller Award. It was by far the most difficult book I’ve ever tackled, featuring a survivor of childhood sexual abuse without ever showing any of the violence she suffered on the page—instead, I focused on the psychological ramifications that impacted her life. Parallel to her story is Lucy’s own struggle with the trauma she’s suffered and the choices she faces about her own future, not just her career but her physical and mental well-being along with her family’s needs.
Last Light sees Lucy starting a new life with an organization which investigates Cold Cases – why are we as readers so obsessed with unsolved historical murders?
I think readers enjoy reading about cold cases because as humans we hate it when chaos wins out over justice. And, at least here in the US, unsolved murders remind us that there are places where killers can get away with murder — not because law enforcement is incompetent in any way, but simply because they are overworked and underfunded with huge swathes of land to cover with minimal manpower. We sleep better at night believing justice is served.
You’ve described your novels as Thrillers With Heart – what do you mean by that?
I never enjoyed the thriller novels that treated characters like they were just along for the ride or that featured gratuitous sex and violence without any emotional honesty to give them real impact. Like many authors, I’m more interested in the grey spaces between the black and white of good and evil than I am the car chases and explosions, so I created the term “Thrillers with Heart” to describe my particular brand of crime fiction. They combine the fast-paced adrenaline rush expected from a thriller with an exploration of the emotions that come from exposure to violence.
Your first publishing deal ended in disaster – tell us what happened…
My first medical thriller, Nerves Of Steel, was bought by a major US publisher in a pre-empt and seemed to be destined to be my dream debut: hardcover, endorsements from a dozen NYT Bestsellers, great pre-sales…until, due to factors totally beyond my control (cover art issues), it was cancelled a few weeks prior to its scheduled release.
Pfft, no more dream debut, no more contracts…In fact, I would have to fight to get my rights back after my original agent left me high and dry.
Plus, when my debut was cancelled, I’d already left my medical practice and so was unemployed for the first time since I was 15. But after a few days feeling sorry for myself, I realized that the best thing I could do if I wanted to make my dream of becoming a published author come true was to keep writing.
While I worked on a new book, I fought to get my rights back from that first publisher. (In fact, I went on to self-publish Nerves Of Steel, which became a bestseller, and due to reader demand has led to three sequels, Sleight Of Hand, Face To Face, and Eye Of The Storm.) It was rough going, but I kept writing.
Two weeks after I won that battle and received my rights back, a publisher with Penguin/Putnam called and asked if I’d like to create a new medical suspense series targeting women readers, along the lines of Grey’s Anatomy meets ER. Of course I said yes and sat down to write Lifelines, my first bestseller.
Oh, and just to show that karma has a sense of humor, the book I wrote after being ditched by my first publisher? Blind Faith, which debuted at #2 on the New York Times Bestseller list…
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
The hardest lesson for me came after that first disaster of losing my dream debut to forces beyond my control. I learned that no one — not my publisher, editor, or agent — was more invested than the success of my novels than I was. So I had to learn how to become my own champion, which meant learning the business.
As a pediatrician, I’ve never run a business, so I threw myself into learning everything I could about marketing, branding, copy writing, audience demographics, profit/loss statements, contracts, etc. Soon I knew more about my audience than my publishers!
I realized that if you want to become a career novelist, you need to take control of the business side of things because you are actually CEO of a Global Media Empire. Your publishers (I’ve worked with most of the major US publishers as well as almost two dozen more around the globe) are your partners, not your patrons. You need to be clear about what you bring to that partnership and what they have to offer and be ready to walk away from any contract that isn’t serving your readers.
When it comes to business, my mantra is: “good” isn’t good enough for my readers, they deserve “great!”
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
Ray Bradbury had the greatest influence on me as a child. He was the first author who taught me that the words themselves can be as beautiful as the pictures they create and worlds they build. I love the way he can evoke emotion on a very subliminal level. I also adore Mark Helprin, Alice Hoffman, and Tana French among others.
Give me some advice about writing…
The best piece of advice for either my writing or my business came from Jeffery Deaver. We were sitting together at an awards banquet (we both won, which was fun) and I asked him what his best words of wisdom were. He told me: Never forget, the reader is god.
In other words, think about the reader with every decision.
Unsure about a plot twist? Will your readers love it?
Should you spend your time tweeting or writing the next book? Write the next book, of course—that’s what your readers want.
What will make your readers excited, delighted, and ready to tell their friends about your books?
Once you keep that vision in mind, your path becomes so much easier, profitable, and much more fun!
What’s next for you?
I’m currently putting the final polish on Lucy’s next adventure, Devil Smoke. It deals with obsession, grief, and denial, featuring a woman who has lost her life to amnesia and Lucy’s team’s efforts to help her. Of course, the twists and turns lead back to a cold case that hits much too close to home. It’s due out July 25, 2016.
Last Light by CJ Lyons is published by Canelo, priced £3.99 in eBook.